Growing old in Greece means just surviving


Ask Greeks how they’re doing and they no longer answer “Fine”. Now they shrug and say “We’ll survive” or “What can we do?”

The ever-present backdrop is the debt crisis that erupted following the 2008 global recession that continues to shake and shape Greece’s 11-million people. The older generation has been especially hard hit by the austerity measures enforced by the so-called Troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank.

poster mocking corrupt Greek politics

Sign in Athens satirizing corruption in Greek politics (from Matador Network)

Many Greeks lost their jobs just as they were nearing the end of their working lives. Even for those who managed to stay employed through their 50s life is tough. The pensions they were counting on to support them in their old age have been decimated by what’s referred to as The Crisis.

I am not getting the pension I’m entitled to. It seems unfair because for 34 years I’d been paying into the fund. If I ever couldn’t pay one month, I paid the next month – and paid a fine. Even after my home was destroyed by an earthquake in 1995, I took out a loan so I could keep paying for my pension.

– Dimitra Stathakoupoulou, whose monthly payment from the Greek retirement fund for the self-employed has been cut by more than 20%

Greek widow checks church obituary board

A Greek widow dressed in traditional black mourning clothes checks obituaries on a church square notice board in the Peloponnesian city of Aigio

Workers and pensioners suffered losses of about 10 billion euros ($13 billion) just in the debt restructuring of March 2012, when the value of some Greek bonds was cut in half. That sum is equal to 4.6 percent of the country’s GDP in 2011. Many savers blame the debacle on the Bank of Greece, the country’s central bank, which administers three-quarters of pension funds’ surplus cash. Pensioners and politicians accuse it of failing to foresee trouble looming, or even of investing pension fund money in government bonds that it knew to be at high risk of a ‘haircut’ – having their value reduced.

Greeks rage against pension calamity, George Georgiopoulos and Lefteris Papadimas, Reuters, 30 November 2012

So what’s an aging Greek to do? The country has few retirement homes, for the very idea of putting your parents in one is frowned upon. This view dates back to ancient Greece.

Geras os Greek god of old age

Geras, the Greek god of old age and root of English words relating to aging, e.g. geriatric and gerontology

During the golden age of Greece, which is still a model for the world, the Greeks regarded the care of the elderly which they called geroboskia, as a sacred duty. The responsibility rested exclusively with the offspring. As a matter of fact, Greek law laid down severe penalties for offspring who omitted to discharge their obligation. In Delphi, for instance, anyone who failed to look after her or his parents were liable to be put in irons and thrown in prison. In Athens those who neglected either their parents or their grandparents were fined and partially deprived of their citizen rights. There were no public facilities for the aged – the very idea of an old peoples home would have been utterly alien to the Greeks.

Care for the Elderly, Greek Style by Christopher Xeneopoulos Janus

This stern view of an offspring’s parental responsibility still prevails today. So a solution has been found in the extended family. Old people are taken care of, but they have to contribute by cooking, cleaning and babysitting while their adult children are at work. If the household is hit by unemployment, YiaYia (Granny) and Papou (Grandpa) may also contribute from their meager pensions. Eventually when they can no longer help and need help themselves, their relatives will be there for them.

Where does that leave childless elderly Greeks? Those who can’t afford an Albanian or Bulgarian domestic worker may be seen begging and scouring bins for food. But a recent study suggesting a causal link between austerity and a small rise in suicides among older Greek men seems flawed, for its data pre-dates the main impact of the measures in 2011.

Elderly Greek men meet up daily for coffee and a chat at a Peloponnesian cafe

Elderly Greek men meet up daily for coffee and a chat at a Peloponnesian cafe

Despite all the pressures from the austerity measures on older Greeks, some manage to see a positive side.

The Crisis is teaching us a lesson about living off your credit card and not working hard for your salary – when you had one. Easy money destroyed our social fabric but now our country is realigning itself to the new reality.

– Corfu Airport operations manager Spiros Kostouros, who has encouraged his 20-something children to seek jobs outside Greece

It’s a realignment reminiscent of a developing country. Now the EU’s mainly southern “PIIGS” countries – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – are being prescribed financial medicine from the north, led by Germany.

Greece is the Third World of Europe, it’s always been on the margins. With the joining of the EU Greeks were happy to at last to be part of Europe, since to be European meant being able to afford consumer goods. Many Greeks can at least go back to their roots, to the old life in the patriko, the ancestral home, to milk the goats and grow some vegetables.

– Greek-South African historian, author and political activist Luli Callinicos, who maintains strong ties to her family’s home island of Ithaca

derelict property in home village

Greeks returning to home villages sometimes find derelict properties

Greeks are proud of their country’s history, so young people have respect for their elders and what they have endured. Older people are seen as more resilient than the youth because they survived the hardships of World War II and the Greek civil war that followed.

Starving Greek children during the second world war

Starving Greek children during the second world war

Greek baby boomers were brought up on stories of the Nazi occupation that led to the starvation of hundreds of thousands of Greeks in 1941–42. Now the country is reliving those memories of poverty and hunger with its nearly 27% unemployment rate, topping Spain’s as the highest in the Eurozone.

I imagined my pension days to be different than this. I thought I’d take up my hobbies again, make more friends, travel – things I hadn’t been able to do all my life because I was working 12 hours a day, bringing up a family, looking after my mother-in-law. But I haven’t been able to do any of that because now it’s the ebb tide. In the sunset of our lives there’s The Crisis.

– Dimitra Stathakoupoulou, retired teacher, Aigio

beach in Ithaca

Sure, there’s The Crisis but life in Greece also has its consolations, e.g. stunning beaches in the Ionian Sea like this one in Kioni on the island of Ithaca.




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